The “P” Word: Privilege

FeaturedThe “P” Word: Privilege

On the 26th of April, we celebrated Freedom Day here at Jeppe with a special assembly which included a thought-provoking address from our guest speaker, Ms Lovelyn Nwadeyi and two equally challenging speeches by The MEC for Education and your own RCL Chairman, Thando Maseko. Mr Jackson has asked me to unpack some aspects of Ms Nwadeyi’s speech for you this morning as it has stirred some strong emotional responses. I see speeches like Ms Nwadeyi’s as opportunities for rigorous debate. Her message was hard-hitting – and for some – uncomfortable. And that’s a good thing.

You see, when it comes to your thinking, much like your body — you need to be challenged and stretched if you want to see progress. If you finish a training session on the astro or in the gym and you aren’t at least a little bit sore and uncomfortable then, guess what? You haven’t really worked.

So let’s get uncomfortable… let’s do some work. Let’s talk about white privilege.

The most important thing to understand about white privilege is to understand what it’s not. Privilege is not the same thing as wealth. When we hear the word ‘privilege’ we automatically think of pampered rich people living in luxury in the leafy suburbs. We imagine excess, ease and extravagance. And that is simply not the experience of all white South Africans. Many (if not most) of the white people in this hall today come from working class or middle-class families, who have had to work hard for what they have. And so when we hear the words ‘white privilege’ we become defensive because we think that our hardships and hard work are being dismissed.

But the word ‘privilege’ has nothing to do with wealth. Look it up. Privilege simply refers to a right, advantage, or immunity that only a particular person or group get to enjoy. So for example, in our school, the first team players are allowed to wear white scarves. That’s a privilege they enjoy. It doesn’t mean that they are wealthy – it simply means that they get to enjoy something that the rest of the students do not.

My mom grew up dirt poor. She was one of eight children, her father lost his leg fighting in World War 2 and the family had to get by on a meagre government disability pension. My dad was the son of Irish immigrants who arrived in this country with absolutely nothing to their name. Not a cent. They worked hard. All of them. And I’m sure that they would argue that they were never given a hand-up or a hand-out. They worked themselves out of poverty. But here’s the thing… the only reason they were able to, was because they were white. Their whiteness meant that their hard work was allowed to amount to something.

I know we don’t pay too much attention to rankings but Jeppe’s first rugby team is currently ranked 7th in the country behind teams like Grey, Paul Roos and Glenwood. The first team players have worked hard. They train at 5 in the morning; their coach, Mr Spilhaus, is one of the hardest taskmasters in the business. And their hard work has secured them a high ranking. But what if I could wave a magic wand and instead of one Paarl Gym, there were suddenly two? What would happen if I could magic up another 10 schools exactly like Grey Bloem, with the same kids, the same facilities and the same coaches? Despite all the work in the world, Jeppe would slip down in the rankings. The effort they have put in hasn’t changed. But because the pool they are competing in has, so have their chances.

Let’s look at it the other way around: if Jeppe only had to compete with schools in JHB, then we would probably be ranked number one. Again, the work and effort the boys have done hasn’t changed. But the pool they are competing in has, and so so have their chances. Just like the job market my parents were competing in 40 years ago, the pool has changed their chances at success.


You see, no one is saying that white people don’t work hard. But what I am saying is, the hard work that white people do is allowed to amount to something because the pool is rigged in their favour. Would my mother have been able to achieve what she did if – instead of competing against the twenty or so other white applicants – she was competing against ten thousand applicants – just as qualified as she was? I doubt it. It was because of her whiteness that we, as a family, were allowed to accumulate wealth and improve our lives.

Imagine playing a video game where the save function was disabled and you were unable to accumulate experience points. That’s what it was like being black during apartheid. No matter how hard you worked, or how much money you earned you couldn’t own land, businesses, or homes. You couldn’t buy your kids a safer suburb to grow up in, or buy them a better education. Every generation started back at zero. Being white was like being the only one with a save function. Everyone was working through the game, but only white people got to accumulate an advantage.

I want to make this crystal clear: saying that white people enjoy a privilege is not saying that their lives are easy or that they haven’t worked hard. White people are not immune to the human condition, they suffer loss and hardship like everyone else.

So then what is it? What is white privilege? For me, it’s simply a preference for whiteness that saturates our society.

I guess if you are white, it’s sometimes hard to see the privilege, because you’re in it and it’s all you’ve ever known. It’s like asking a fish to notice water.

I’ll give you an example: little kids love plasters. They will have the tiniest scratch, and act like they’re about to bleed out – just so that they can get a plaster. I am relieved that these days there are plasters available with cartoon characters on them like ‘Lightning McQueen’ – because plasters are one of many products that have been designed just for white people. The so-called ‘flesh’ coloured plasters only match a white skin tone. More than 80% of our population is black. That’s well over 40 million people in our country (and another 38 million in the states – so don’t tell me there’s no market) and yet pharmaceutical companies are specifically catering to the needs of less than 10% of the population …. white people. It’s a privilege to have your needs acknowledged; your needs catered for; your needs addressed.

When you go to a hotel, and get a complimentary bottle of shampoo, whose hair do you imagine it is designed for? As a white person, when I get a job, or make a team, I enjoy the privilege of people assuming I earned it.

People do not assume that I got where I am professionally because of my race or because of affirmative action programmes. When I walk in to teach a new class at the beginning of a school year, my accent and name are unlikely to result in my students questioning my credentials or my competence.

White people also have the privilege of options. Go into any toy store. You will see a wall of blond and blue eyed dolls. Ten years ago, there were no black dolls, but they have recently introduced a handful into the mix. But only a few. It’s the needs of white little girls that are clearly their priority. Look at superheroes. We all got very excited about the recent ‘Black Panther’ film, and the first black superheroes. The film took in more than 1.3 billion dollars world-wide – proving once again that there is a huge black market. Some people argued that it wasn’t a big deal. There were always black superheroes. What about Blade, Hancock, Cyborg and Iron man’s sidekick? Black people should stop being greedy, I mean there are at least 5 black superheroes. How many do you they want? Well, do you know how many there are in total? Marvel lists seven thousand official characters. DC Comics claims to have more. So five out of a possible 14-15 thousand?! Yes, black people you should be satisfied with that. Know your place.

Now these are just examples of the millions of ways that whiteness is valued and given priority in our society.

Some might argue that the examples amount to nothing more than an inconvenience, but I would argue that constant and daily messages that you are somehow ‘less-than’ because of the colour of your skin, shapes your sense of self, and does serious damages to your sense of the possibilities for your life.

But if you’re looking for more obvious, more severe examples, I can provide those too.

About two years ago, while walking through Woolworths picking up the week’s groceries, my wife was stopped by a wannabe ‘good samaritan’  in the store who told her that she should keep an eye on her belongings as she suspected that the boy walking behind her was trying to take something from her handbag. The boy was my son Oliver. He was 4 at the time. Since my son is black and my wife is white, I can understand that there may have been some confusion about whether or not they were together. But why did she assume he was stealing? Why was her first response not…. ‘Oh shame, that poor little boy must be lost’? Isn’t it human nature to look at a four-year-old child and see innocence, and yet something was stronger than that. Something overrode that instinct. Before she saw my son’s age; she saw his colour. You see, if you are black, even as a child, you do not have the privilege of being presumed innocent.

A couple of weeks ago this message popped up on my neighbourhood’s WhatsApp group, it read as follows: ‘Two black males in a gold Volkswagen circling the crescent – please keep an eye…’ To which one of my neighbours replied, ‘Has the guardhouse been notified!’ After about three more messages expressing similar concern with varying degrees of alarm another neighbour replied — ‘I think it was my uber eats — he was in a gold golf…’ End of conversation.

When you are black you do not have the privilege of being presumed innocent.

These examples are pretty close to home for me. Literally. Sometimes it’s easier to take a step back, and look at cases from overseas. And on this issue there are plenty to choose from. Just this month, two black men were arrested in a Starbucks, after a white female employee called the cops. Their crime? Sitting at a table and waiting for their friend. They were held for 9 hours before eventually being released without charge. Starbucks apologised and has promised to close all 8000 of their stores for diversity training.

A couple of weeks ago, at Yale University, a black student who is studying for her Masters degree, was working on an assignment, and fell asleep in the common room of her own dormitory. A white student called the police claiming there was an intruder. She told them she was a student and even used her key to unlock her bedroom, but the three officers were not satisfied. She was still questioned and had to produce identification papers to prove she had a right to be there. Is anyone here going to claim that if a blond girl fell asleep in her own res, the police would be called?

Just an inconvenience? Tell that the mother of Michael Brown, the innocent and unarmed black teenager who was shot 6 times by police. Or Trayvon Martin’s family, just 17, gunned down for looking suspicious. Or explain to the four-year-old girl, who watched from the back seat as her father, Philando Castile was shot seven times in the chest after being pulled over by the police. The video of the murder was caught on tape and it’s one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen. I’ll say it again. When you are white, you enjoy the privilege of being presumed innocent.

As a white man, I benefit daily from the colour of my skin. Daily. And let’s just remember what that privilege comes from. I benefit because crimes against humanity were committed. Torture, murder, rape, humiliation, oppression … that’s the source of my advantage.

Now how am I supposed to feel about that? What do we do with that? I can almost guarantee, that after this speech, I will receive angry emails from parents complaining that their white sons were made to feel bad about themselves. Maybe that’s because when you are used to privilege – when you become accustomed to it – equality feels like oppression. Making you feel bad about yourselves is certainly not my intention here today. You have no reason to feel ashamed. After all, none of you were born when the crimes that have created your advantage were committed. But I will tell you what I feel is an appropriate way to respond.

Stop denying it. Stop pretending that it isn’t real. Stop throwing your hands in the air at the very mention of it. As a start, I am going to ask you to be grateful for your privilege, and realise that through no fault of yours — or their own — millions of people are worse off and don’t deserve to be. The best thing to do is just acknowledge it. You have been given an unfair advantage. So use it. Do something meaningful with it. Or don’t. But whatever you do, don’t deny it. Your denial is not harmless. In my mind, it should be a crime.

I think Tom Eaton put it pretty well when he said, “If you can look out of your car window and still genuinely believe that white people and black people start from the same base and enjoy the same economic and social opportunities, then you are like someone walking into a blood-spattered room and not seeing anything amiss. You are unable to see that a crime has been committed, and you are likely to dismiss appeals for justice because you don’t think an injustice has been done. No matter how kind and generous you might consider yourself, if you deny that a crime has occurred then you are subtly working to defeat the ends of justice.”

My Challenge…Do something.

By Kevin Leathem and Tammy Bechus


Don’t Hope, Decide.

Don’t Hope, Decide.

I went for a run on January the first. Which is not particularly impressive because when you have kids – there’s no New Year’s Eve party the night before. It’s was just me and Ms Bechus watching the ‘Royal Variety Show’, and shielding our family dog from the sound of the fireworks – truth be told, I think we called it a night around 11.

I love running in the first week of January because there’s always a new crowd out on the roads. They’re a little rounder and a little more out of breath. But fiercely determined. It’s the new year’s resolution pack – a few of the millions of people around the world who made a resolution to finally, once and for all – lose weight and get into shape.

And that’s what I want to talk to you about today. Your New Year’s Resolutions. You might be wondering why I’ve chosen to speak about this on the 28th of January. The reason is actually quite simple. I went for a run this morning and almost all the new runners were gone. Whatever motivation had got them out of bed on the first of January had disappeared four weeks later.

But don’t take my word for it. Take Strava’s. Strava is a fitness app for athletes that records runs, swims and bike rides through smartphones and watches. It allows you to track your progress and also to share that information with others. I’m a competitive person and so when I’m not in the mood to run, just seeing that Mr Gittins went for a run the night before is all the motivation I need to get out of bed at four AM.

Strava looked at more than 108 million entries in the U.S. and found that the 17th of January is when most users were likely to bail out on fitness resolutions, with Thursdays being particularly problematic. Perhaps you’re thinking ‘Thanks for the heads up, Leathem – why didn’t you tell us this two weeks ago’?

But think about that stat for a minute – that’s millions and millions of well-intentioned people whose resolutions didn’t see out the first month of the year. And that tallies with our own experiences. The top resolutions for adults are the old standbys – get out of debt and save more, lose weight and exercise. For students they are probably about improving marks, staying out of detention, or making specific teams.  If we’re honest with ourselves many of the resolutions that we made have already been abandoned while others are barely hanging on.

I’m not suggesting that making resolutions is pointless. In fact, I think it’s brilliant. It means you’ve thought about areas in your life that might need some tweaking. Recognising that there’s room for improvement is the first step – some might say the most important step – in actually achieving your goals. No, seriously, you need to make some New Year’s resolutions so that you can become a better you – a more attractive you; an organized you; a you that is well… less like you.

But you also need to stick to your resolutions past Thursday. Whether you’re swearing off junk food, promising to stay on top of your studies or you’re a teacher determined to get marking back to your classes on time this year… here’s my advice.

First, aim low. Your teachers, parents and coaches are constantly telling you to do the exact opposite. Dream big and shoot for the stars. But when it comes to comes to making meaningful changes to your life, I’m going to ask you to do something radical. I want you to lower the bar and start with something small. I want everybody in this hall to think of one small thing that you aren’t doing now, that if done on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life? If it’s small it’s manageable. If it’s done regularly, over time, then it’s powerful. It’s right there is your Physical Science textbook on that page of equations you have to learn. Work over time equals power.

My next tip is to find a way to hold yourself accountable. I made the mistake of telling Mr Jackson that I was planning on running the Comrades Marathon later this year. Since then he’s made reference to it at least 5 times in the staffroom, mentioned it at the Grade 8 induction evening and used it as an analogy to drive home points in exec meetings. Telling him was a mistake. A mistake I seem determined not to learn from as I announce it here to 1000 boys and later when I upload the transcript of this speech to my blog …So why is this significant?

By making my goals public and announcing them to the world, I’m essentially asking those around me to hold me accountable. I realise that there is a certain danger in posting a ‘before’ photo on Facebook, before you’ve achieved the ‘after’…. but the reason it’s a risk is the very reason why it’s effective. While many of us are afraid of failure, we are often far more afraid that a potential private disappointment will instead become public humiliation.

It’s at this point that I would like to mention that Mr Gittins, Mr Ruh, Mr Allan and Mr McCann have also entered this year’s Comrades … just saying.

These are tricks or tips that might help you to stick to your resolutions, but there is a far more important step you have to take if you hope to make lasting changes in your life. I think most resolutions fail because when we make them, we know what we want – but we haven’t really decided to make it happen. Not really.

There is a great story that Michael Hargrove tells about a life-changing experience he had when he went to pick up a friend at an airport. He was going through a bit of a rough patch in his marriage at the time: his children were young and difficult, his wife and him were getting very little sleep and were constantly at each other’s throats.  

While he was waiting for his friend, a man walked out of the arrivals gate and stopped close to him to greet his family. He greeted his children one by one. First, he motioned to his youngest son (maybe six years old) as he put down his bags. They gave each other a long, loving hug. As they separated enough to look in each other’s face, Hargrove heard the father say, “It’s so good to see you, son. I missed you so much!”  Then he took his oldest son’s face in his hands and said “You’re already quite the young man. I love you very much, Zach!” And they gave each other a big hug.

Then the man declared “I’ve saved the best for last!” and gave his wife a long and passionate kiss. According to Hargrove they were behaving like newlyweds, and he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy for this man’s happy family life.

“How long have you two been married?” he blurted out.

“Twelve years total.” the man replied without breaking his gaze from his wife. “And how long have you been away?” Still beaming at his wife, he said, “Two whole days!”

Hargrove was stunned! He had been certain by the intensity of the reunion that the man had been away for several weeks, if not months and said, “Wow. I hope my marriage is still that passionate after twelve years!”

The man stopped smiling, looked Hargrove straight in the eye and said, “Don’t hope, friend…decide.”

Don’t hope; decide.

That anecdote really resonates with me, because I know what it feels like to really make a decision to change your life. The next time you’re walking past the staff room, have a look at the 2008 first team water polo photo hanging outside the kitchen entrance… I weighed 114 kilograms, I was depressed, unhealthy and basically hating life and I can remember with absolute clarity the moment I decided that enough was enough.

It wasn’t a Monday (diets always start on a Monday), it wasn’t the first of the month or new year’s day. It was mid-afternoon on a Tuesday in September 2008 and I decided. There was no negotiation, no procrastination or deliberation. There was a decision.

That photo used to bother me and I would joke that I’d come in over a weekend and steal it at some stage and I once even lied to a grade 8 and told him that it was my brother – but I’m actually happy it’s there – it serves as a reminder of where I was both emotionally and physically, and how I will hopefully never allow myself to get back there again.

And I haven’t so far. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like it’s been smooth sailing ever since. There’s no magical, once-off mental step that changes everything forever. You will have to decide again and again and again.

That is why members of alcoholics anonymous measure their sobriety day to day. They decide again every single day. At every Sunday braai, at every staff function, at every celebration and after every disappointment.

Today, I’m asking you to reflect on your lives, ask yourself what one small thing done consistently over time, will have a meaningful impact on your life? And then decide. Not next Monday, not next term and not next season. Being better is difficult, and you won’t always manage – but that’s ok because you always have the chance to decide again tomorrow.

Don’t just hope boys – decide.

With Great Beard Comes Great Responsibility

With Great Beard Comes Great Responsibility

Today I want to talk to you about beards, well not exactly, but please indulge me for a few minutes.

I can’t actually remember the last time I was cleanly shaven — in fact, my youngest son Charlie, who is now two and a half years old, has never seen me without a beard. I don’t own a razor and I haven’t seen my chin since 2009.

As a man who sports a relatively large beard — I often find that my facial hair becomes a topic of conversation and people I’m meeting for the first time use it as an icebreaker instead of discussing the weather. I am often asked “How did you grow it?”,  and sometimes, somewhat creepily, I’m asked: “Can I touch it?”

While not a biology teacher, I know that the ability to grow a beard is dictated by the way in which a my body reacts to testosterone. In general, most males have around the same level of testosterone. But as the New York Times highlights, men who grow thick beards are more sensitive, or responsive, to testosterone than their baby-faced peers. In other words, the capacity to grow a beard has nothing to do with manliness, virility or testosterone levels, and everything to do with genetics. So blame Mom and Dad if you can’t grow one. Not being able to grow a beard isn’t a medical issue, and there’s nothing you can or should do about it. Interestingly enough, men who are more sensitive to testosterone are apparently also more likely to go bald.

So the short answer to “How did you grow that beard?” is quite simply — I just let it grow. Hopefully, by now you are beginning to ask yourself what an assembly address about beards has to do with 1000 high school boys — who are not allowed to grow facial hair?

Another question I’m often asked — especially by my disapproving mother, is “Why?” and the answer to that is far simpler … because I can… and if I’m being honest — because I’m good at it.

And that’s what I want to talk to you about today. The things you’re good at. Your talents.

We all have talents. The names on the boards around this hall are a testament to some of the talented boys who have attended this school. Some of them were gifted academically, others were naturals at sport. But there are so many talents that are not adequately recognised or rewarded in institutions like Jeppe. Maybe you are musical or can sing. Some of you are writers, poets and lyricists. Perhaps your gift a sense of humour that brings joy to those around you. Compassion is a gift. Maybe you’re a good listener whose gift is to comfort those in need. I’ve watched many boys in my time as a hostel master who were talented teachers. Other boys always sought them out because they were able to explain things in a way that just made sense. Whether it’s your fashion sense, or ability to organise a party …. We all have talents.

But whatever your talent, I want to remind you that it is a NATURAL skill or ability. In other words, it’s not a skill you’ve honed, or worked hard to acquire but rather something that just comes to you without being taught. Maybe a better word is gift. Intelligence is a gift, the ability to run fast is a gift. If you’re good looking — guess what? That’s a gift too. Or like in my case, if you have the ability to grow an impressive beard — once again that has nothing to do do with you. You see, like the name suggests, gifts are given to you — not made by you — and as such, you shouldn’t spend too much time patting yourself on the back about them – they were handed to you in the genetic lottery of life, or if you’re religious, you might say that they are ‘God-given’.

So the question is why? Why were we given the talents we have? I think the answer to that probably depends on your set of personal beliefs. But I can tell you what I believe: I believe that every life has purpose. And all that’s in you is also there for a reason; to make a difference, to leave a positive mark on the world, and to influence those around you so they too can flourish.

I’d like to read you part of the passage Nelson Mandela quoted in his inauguration speech: “We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. We are all meant to shine. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

And that’s what I believe: I believe that you have a duty to use what you have been given. Enjoy being good at something. Revel in it. Use your gift to make a contribution to the world. Just use it. What’s the alternative? To ignore it? To laud it over others? Hide it? Squander it? Waste it? Surely no one here thinks that, when given something of value, throwing it away is a smart move?

I have often heard Jeppe boys repeat the saying ‘Hard work beats talent; when talent doesn’t work hard.’ Sadly, I think the only reason that saying came about is because the world is full of examples of talented people who sit back and coast. They take their gifts for granted and do nothing to harness their potential.

It reminds me of a tweet I came across on Mr Gittins’ timeline recently that I thought was profound. It was somebody’s definition of hell. It read: “The last day you have on earth, the person you became will meet the person you could have become.” I’ll read that again: “The last day you have on earth, the person you became will meet the person you could have become.” You see, the measure of you as a man will not be determined by what you started with — instead, by what you have done with the cards that you were dealt. If you are born with talents, and I believe we all are, then simply possessing them, is not enough. Did you embrace them, did you grow them, did you inspire others, did your talents give other people permission to shine? If you did that then the meeting described as hell would be the exact opposite. It would be the realisation of God’s plan for you. And surely that must be heaven.

“Hard work beats talent; when talent doesn’t work hard.” But when talent works hard — it’s game over.

Thank you

Freedom Day

20180426_113643.jpgWhen I sat down to write this speech, I started by writing about the heroes who fought for the freedom we enjoy today – men like Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe and Nelson Mandela. I wrote about how on Freedom Day, of all days, we should be mindful of their sacrifices and be grateful. Grateful to the men and women who lived the words of our school prayer and “counted honour better than life, and sacrifice nobler than safety”. I wanted you to be left with a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude.

But then it struck me that I would be speaking to an audience of born-frees. Every current Jeppe boy was born after the end of apartheid. You were all born into a free country, and have never known anything else. In 1994 people of colour won their liberation, but white people were already ‘free’ under the Apartheid government. And so, as a white man, even though I was born before the first free elections, I was also born free. In fact, the vast majority of us here today are ‘born-frees’. So it seems slightly disingenuous for me, a white man, to be standing in front of you telling you how grateful you should be for a freedom I believe we are all entitled to. Especially considering that most of us have never known anything else.

You see, often, being grateful is a behaviour, more than a feeling. When you get given something, you say thank you. Whether it’s someone passing the salt across the dinner table, wishing you a happy birthday or paying for your school fees … the appropriate response is to be appreciative and show gratitude. But do you really FEEL grateful?

There’s a reason people say that you don’t appreciate what you’ve got until it’s gone and that’s because, quite simply, it’s hard to.

I have my health. I might have not be as fit as I used to be… or else I definitely would have beaten Biffy at the school gala … but my limbs are all in working order, and my body does what it needs to do. Am I grateful for my health? Yes, if I stop to think about it – then of course I’m grateful – but it’s an intellectual exercise. I don’t wake up feeling appreciation for my limbs, because I take them for granted. I have to imagine what life would be like without working limbs in order to feel that gratitude. Sometimes something tragic happens and for a short time we are able to feel it. Like when Daniel dos Santos, a Jeppe boy, was paralysed in a car accident in 2014. And then for a horrible moment, it becomes real, and maybe we say a silent prayer in appreciation for all we have. But how long does that feeling last?

Similarly, I am ashamed to admit that I don’t know that I am truly appreciative of freedom, because I’ve never known anything but freedom.

I don’t know what daily degradation feels like. I don’t know what it feels like to have to be off the streets by a certain time, so that they would be deemed safe for the people who mattered. I don’t know what it feels like to have to carry the humiliating passbook – a document that declared my inferior status – terrified that I’d be stopped and asked for my papers.  I don’t know what it feels like to work hard every day and not be able to improve my situation or those of my children.

To not be able to move my family to a safe area, or send my kids to a good school, or leave something for them so that their lives would be better than mine.

They say freedom is like air: when you have it, you don’t give it much thought. When you don’t have it, it’s hard to think about anything else.

But I’ve always had it so I don’t know.

I was around when the first free and fair elections were held. I would love to tell you how I stood for hours in the cold, in a queue that snaked around the voting station for miles. I’d love to tell you how South Africans of all races stood together imbued with hope, and sang freedom songs together. And those things happened – but not to me – I was in Grade 8, and only fourteen years old. I know my parents voted, and I know my grandparents stockpiled water and candles just in case the country went to hell. But that’s about it. I do remember two black boys – Harry and Karabo  – joining my class. But that was the only discernible change in my life.

So I don’t know what it’s like to NOT be free, and neither do you. We may face obstacles, and suffer hardships but none of us is disenfranchised and so none of us can fully appreciate how blessed we are when very few of us have a basis for comparison.

So I can’t demand that you feel anything. But I am going to ask you to DO something to show your respect. I’m going to ask for a behaviour, not a feeling. I want you to exercise that hard-won freedom by using your voice. I think we owe that to the previous generation.

Most of you are too young to vote, but you can still exercise your voice here at Jeppe. And not just about Jeppe-related issues. During Apartheid schools were prominent arenas in the fight against the government and RCLs were highly political. It’s no accident that the watershed moment in the struggle was the Soweto Uprising which was lead by school kids, some as young as 11. Just last year, a young student at Pretoria girls changed education in South Africa when she stood up against what she perceived to be a racist hair policy. Her courage was infectious and even reached us here at Jeppe. Boys and management sat together and came to an understanding, and a new hair policy was drafted. What I want you to focus on is that things changed. Boys used their voice and things changed.

There is so much that still needs to be done. The legacy of Apartheid lives on in under-resourced schools and in the grinding poverty experienced by so many South Africans. Crime, a lack of employment opportunities, and corruption plague our beautiful country and it’s hard not to feel a sense of hopelessness at times.

Mr Van der Ryst shared a story with the staff about a similar discussion he was having in his history class. Boys were listing the many seemingly insurmountable problems facing South Africa and Mr Van der Ryst asked the class, “So, why should we stay in South Africa?”  After contemplating the question, one of the boys, in just three words answered his question in the most profound way possible. His answer – “to fix it”.

Who is going to fix it, if not us? This generation has a loudspeaker in the form of social media, and a power to mobilise like never before. You can raise money through crowdfunding, start a conversation with a hashtag and reach across the world in just 140 characters. There is just no excuse not to get involved.

Here at Jeppe, you can run for the RCL or run to the RCL with your concerns. You can submit a letter to the ‘49 Difficulties’, or speak up in defence of your friend who’s being bullied.

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. In order to protect it,  you have to exercise it.  You have a voice, boys, now use it.  And I promise you that I will do the same. My speech is not a call for appreciation, it’s a call to action.

I would like to end with the words of Nelson Mandela which are particularly pertinent:

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.  I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

It Wasn’t Me

It Wasn’t Me

Today I want to speak to you about the relationship between fault and responsibility. They often appear together in our culture and are often used interchangeably. But they are not the same thing. If I hit you with my car, I am both at fault and likely legally responsible for compensating you in some way. This is the way fault works in our society. If you mess up, it’s on you to make it right. And it should be that way.

If only it were always that simple.

I want you to imagine a scenario: think of one the sports teams you have played for or perhaps a team that you support. Now I want you to imagine one the biggest games of the season: Jeppe vs KES, Madrid vs Barcelona, Chiefs vs Pirates. Imagine a pivotal moment in that game, perhaps a bad call from the referee or a moment of brilliance from the opponent. Now I want you to think about the players who make up that team, but I want you to focus on one guy in particular and his reaction. By now you should all know him very well – I certainly do – he has been in every team I’ve ever played in. He’s unpredictable, impulsive and hot-headed. He’s often extremely talented but he’s a liability, because at any moment he’s likely to do something silly and he almost always does this at the most inopportune time. When you really need him to be in control he throws a punch,  “chirps” an official, or bites someone on the shoulder – and is issued a red card. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been “that guy”. To this day I can still remember the moment I lost my head during a first team polo match against St Stithians — who at the time were the powerhouse of schools’ Water Polo – I shouted “open your ______ eyes!” to the referee as the ball was stolen from me illegally … and that was me done for the day, sent for the proverbial early shower. In that moment, I became  “Costa” – he who lets his team down. And as I mentioned, “that guy” is in almost every team you’ll ever play for and in most of the classes you attend – and perhaps, if you are being honest without yourself, he might even be you.

But I don’t want to talk about “that guy” because focussing on him is exactly the problem. The simple truth is that he isn’t going anywhere. Players like him hardly ever change and you need to stop using him as an excuse when results don’t go your way because when you’re stuck in a cycle of blame you aren’t solving any problems.

Your teammate who gets a red card or doesn’t arrive for his fixture on Saturday is most certainly at fault and has let his team down but he can no longer directly affect the outcome of the game. Think about it.  At this point, he’s the ONE player who can’t fix it.  Make peace with this fact because that is what it is – a fact. Those of you left behind need to take responsibility for something that isn’t your fault. It’s on you to fix it, and you know what – that’s not fair – you’re absolutely right – but regardless of how unfair you feel this is if you remain focused on the injustice instead of on how to fix it – you have no chance of winning that game.

Fault is past tense. Responsibility is present tense. Fault results from choices that have already been made. Responsibility results from the choices you’re currently making every second of every day. You are choosing to listen to me. You are choosing to think about the concepts. You are choosing to accept or reject the concepts. It’s not your fault that I chose to write this speech, but you are still responsible for choosing whether to pay attention.

It’s like Mr Jackson’s coke bottle test. For the Grade 8s who don’t know, Mr Jackson occasionally leaves an empty bottle somewhere on the Jeppe campus and then watches from a distance to see how long it will take for a Jeppe boy or staff member to pick it up and throw it away. Now the boys who come across that bottle didn’t litter. It’s not their fault there’s trash on the ground. It’s Mr Jackson’s fault. And the boys who see the litter and walk straight past it, are probably thinking just that ‘I didn’t do it, it wasn’t me’. But the true Jeppe boy understands that it is the responsibility of every one of us who love Jeppe to care for and protect it. Whether it’s keeping the campus clean by throwing away a piece of litter, or greeting visitors, or upholding the good name of our school … it’s on all of us.

Mr Motlogeloa is responsible for discipline in this school. He and the Heads of Grade do not commit any offences, that we know of,  in most cases they don’t even witness the offence, and are rarely directly affected by the violation, but they are still responsible for the incident whether it is homework not done, bullying, theft or vandalism. I often joke with Mr Venter, when we aren’t dealing with any discipline issues and the school appears quiet, that there is probably a Grade 11 boy out there somewhere about to do something stupid. Mr Motlogeloa chooses the consequences; he identifies the metric against which the crime will be measured, he runs the disciplinary hearings and he makes sure that the incident is resolved. He takes responsibility for fixing something that isn’t his fault.

Fault is simply about finding someone to blame. It’s judgemental and not particularly helpful. Responsibility, on the other hand, is about facing problems and trying to solve them. Fault is a verdict; responsibility is an assignment.

When something goes wrong, it’s a common response to look around for who messed up. But blaming the world for our problems is the easy way out. It’s tempting and it can even be satisfying. We’re the victims and we get to be all indignant at all of the terrible injustices that have been inflicted upon us. We wallow in our imagined victimhood so as to spare ourselves.

But while blaming others for the problems in your life may give you a smidgen of short-term relief, it ultimately implies something entirely insidious: that you are incapable of controlling your own fate. And that’s the most depressing assumption of all to live with.

Bad things may have happened to you. You may find yourself in difficult circumstances, not of your making. I am not unsympathetic to the very real challenges many of you face. You may have a right to your anger and your hurt. But hear me now: despite the unfairness of the hand you’ve been dealt, you have to take responsibility for your life and your happiness. Nobody else is ever responsible for that but you.

We’ve all heard the quote “With great power comes great responsibility.” One would imagine that a profound statement like this would have come from one of the great philosophers, perhaps Plato or Socrates. But it actually comes from Spiderman. They were the last words spoken to Peter Parker by Uncle Ben as he died.

We’ve all heard the quote. It gets repeated a lot. It’s one of those perfect quotes that sounds really intelligent.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” It is true. But there’s a better version of this quote, a version that actually is profound, and all you have to do is switch the nouns around:

With great responsibility comes great power.

Thank you.

From the Shadows of the Leader


The 2017 Prefect Body

This afternoon we will be announcing the boys elected to the 2017 prefect body, and as it was my turn to address the school it seemed obvious that I should deliver a speech about leadership.


But, as an English teacher, when I give advice on writing speeches I always stress the importance of knowing one’s audience. It was at this point that the task at hand became far more complex, because if I analyse the student body, you my audience, there are about 20 – 30 boys who might become prefects in matric, there are boys who captain teams in every age group and boys who are elected as RCL representatives but the vast majority of the approximately 1000 Jeppe boys sitting in front of me today may never hold any official leadership positions while at school.

Now I’m only talking about official positions – you may have leadership qualities and be a leader among your friends – you may choose to lead by example – some of you will go on to be community leaders, church leaders and leaders of industry. And most of you will lead a family one day … but for now, the majority of you will find yourself in the position of follower and not leader.

And no one wants to be a follower, right? The word follower has such negative connotations. We think of followers as being weak, ‘yes’ men or worse – sheep. People who go along with the crowd, blindly and mindlessly following the herd off the edge of a cliff. In our leader-obsessed culture, being a “follower” has become a signal that you’re doing something wrong: those in charge are celebrated; while followers tend to fade into the background.

But I think we’ve got it wrong. Being a follower isn’t ‘bad’. First of all, the characterization of someone as either a leader or follower isn’t fixed. We aren’t one or the other. Most of us are both – just in different areas or at different times.

Take this year’s Head boy, Kyle Grundlingh, as an example. While he held the highest leadership position available to a learner, there were many situations where he was expected to be a follower – whether this meant taking instruction from a teacher or coach, or having to execute the calls made by his captain in the pool or on the rugby field. Kyle obliged and assumed the role of follower. Being a follower did not make Kyle any less of a leader – in fact, I would argue that it was his willingness to be led – especially in areas where he knew that others might be better equipped to make the right call – that made him better leader.


The idea that followers are somehow less-than is outdated. Perhaps in redefining the concept for our modern age it’s appropriate that we turn to social media for some guidance. On sites like Twitter and Instagram, you can follow accounts and in turn be followed. No negative assumptions are made about the choice to follow. In fact, top Business magazines and newspapers publish articles such as ‘Ten twitter accounts every aspiring leader must follow.’

I decided to look at the twitter habits of some of the world’s most illustrious sportsmen and women. My favourite footballer, Luis Suarez has 7.65m followers and follows only 40. Included on the list of people he follows are his principal sponsor Adidas, his club captain, his national captain and the official accounts of Barcelona and Uruguay. The point that I’m trying to make is that despite having nearly 8 million followers – even Luis Suarez, a player who literally bites his opponents when he doesn’t get his way, knows that there is a time to follow.

Everybody has to follow. We all acknowledge a higher authority than ourselves in some area – whether that authority is spiritual, or practical. Gentlemen, we are all followers. Get over it. It’s not an insult.

Now we have to talk about being good followers. I think there are two criteria that make one a good follower: first, trust your leaders.

In voting for your school leaders, you have exercised your right to choose. Now it’s time to give those you have elected your support. When we vote people into power, we no longer have a say in every little decision that needs to be made, nor should we want it. We had our say when we helped put them into their positions. We voted them in – we trusted them with our vote and now we should trust them to be our voice and make difficult calls when necessary.

The person you voted for might be the prefect who in a few weeks tells you to stand during assembly when you misbehave or takes your name when you arrive late for school. So often I hear boys comment on how so and so has ‘changed’ since becoming a prefect – which is so unfair. The boy who asks you to take your hands out of your pockets hasn’t changed – his role has changed and that would not have been the case had it not been for you.

In my role as a deputy, I have come to realise that peer leadership is one of the most difficult of all the management functions. I ask that you appreciate the task at hand and support those who occupy leadership roles whether that is your teacher, your coach, your parents or simply someone expecting more of you. Leadership is difficult … trust those you choose to follow until they give you a legitimate reason not to.


Which brings me to the second characteristic of a good follower. They hold their leaders to account. Your role as a follower is not a passive one. I have asked that you support those in leadership positions but perhaps your most important function as a follower is to keep those in power, in line. Expect more from them. Demand that they be  examples for others to follow – you have given them your voice and now you can’t allow that to be misrepresented. You will have to take direction but you have an underlying obligation to the school to do so only when the direction is ethical and proper. Good followers have the courage to challenge their leaders when things don’t seem right.

The key is having the judgement to know the difference between an instruction that your leader gives that you don’t feel like complying with – and an instruction that is truly wrong. No one disputes that good judgement is critical to being a good leader. But it is just as important in the follower. Courage is at the foundation of effective leadership, just as it is for effective followership.

Strong followers keep the leader in touch with what is happening on the ground, in real time. This is sometimes hard to do, requiring a follower’s great tact and interpersonal skill at delivering to the leader the news that needs to be heard. When they disagree with those in authority, strong followers do so in private and avoid public confrontations. They aren’t passive-aggressive and they don’t disrespect their leaders behind their backs.

I know that there are many Jeppe boys who feel overlooked, and find themselves in the shadows of the school leaders. But know that how you choose to respond to that role speaks volumes – not only about your character – but also your suitability for future leadership roles. Show enough good judgement as a follower and you usually end up getting a shot at being the leader.

Bitter not twisted

101485328-jamie-vardy-sport-xlarge_transqvzuuqpflyliwib6ntmjwfsvwez_ven7c6bhu2jjnt8Many of you that I’ve taught know that I am a massive football fan, but this Premier League season, which was arguably the most significant and unpredictable in history has not been one that I have particularly enjoyed. There are two reasons why I’m left with a bitter after taste in my mouth. In my infinite wisdom, I thought it would be a good idea to get my wife to enter a team into the Jeppe Staff fantasy league – not only did she win the league, she managed to beat me by nearly 200 points – my only consolation was beating Mr Hillock who stopped playing after round 3. When I told her that my assembly address would be about soccer she insisted that I mention her triumph so that my shame would be made public. But jokes aside, the real reason why I felt so empty and unfulfilled this season … Leicester City.

I can remember with absolute clarity the moment that I first truly believed that Leicester City would win the Premier league – it was on the 2nd of February 2016 as I watched Jamie Vardy smash a “goal-of-the-year”-worthy strike over the hapless Liverpool Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. As most of you now know, they did indeed go on to win the league. They won it quite comfortably in the end, with two games to spare. This unbelievable underdog story has caught the eye of the international media, with The Washington Post calling it ‘The Best Sports Story Ever.” What they have achieved is quite simply remarkable. In fact, if the Leicester turn-around was pitched as an idea for a movie, they’d reject it on the grounds that it was too unlikely.

To put it into perspective, at the beginning of the season bookmakers in London offered better odds on Kim Kardashian becoming the next American president than on Leicester winning the Barclays Premier League. Leicester were given a 5000 to 1 chance. So if you had made a R100 bet on them winning, you would have won half a million rand.

But it’s not the rags to riches, underdog story, fascinating as it is, that intrigues me. It’s my own reaction to them winning that I’d like to explore today.

You see, while the football world celebrated David’s victory over Goliath, I just couldn’t get on the band wagon. I was indignant. How dare they? These were certainly not the blues I’d become accustomed to, and made peace with, seeing lifting trophies in May. Put simply – I wasn’t happy that they’d won it – I’m pretty sure I should’ve been, but “haters gonna hate”. About a week after the most unlikely of victories I tweeted the following “Leicester winning it will be like a homeless man winning the lotto. They won’t know what to do with it all and they’ll you be relegated within three seasons.” A friend of mine replied, “peanut butter and jealous”. It was this accusation that made me first start to interrogate my feelings.

While I might be slightly jealous, that’s not the whole of it. I mean, over the past few years (26 actually but who’s counting) I’ve watched as the trophy changed hands from one bitter rival to another … but this year was different. I think it’s because Leicester stole more than the league – they stole my excuses.

You see, for years I comforted myself by believing that money bought the league. The top three clubs – Manchester United, City and Chelsea – have either billionaire owners or huge commercial deals, which allow them to spend large sums on numerous world class players. Sheik Mansaur who owns Man city is worth an estimated 20 billion pounds; his family is worth 680 billion. There’s not a player in any league who’s financially beyond his reach. Chelsea are also loaded. They have 150 million pounds worth of talent on loan to clubs around Europe. So when these clubs win the league I make peace with it because I tell myself that they have essentially bought their victory by throwing money at the problem.

But Leicester are one of the poorest clubs– their entire 20-man squad, at the beginning of the season, was valued at 54 million pounds – the same price paid by Manchester City to secure just one man – Kevin De Bruyne from Wolfsburg.

When Leicester won, there went two decades of rationalisations and justifications of why my beloved Liverpool have failed to win the league even once. If Leicester could do it without the millions– how come Liverpool have never been able to? I have to acknowledge that maybe money alone isn’t enough to secure the title.

So it’s not jealousy that’s been fuelling my negative sentiment towards Leicester but rather the realisation that I have been fooling myself when it comes to the team I support, and no doubt also in other areas of my life that I’m not even aware of.

Psychologists call this ‘self-handicapping’. I call it lying-to-myself-so-it-doesn’t-hurt-as-much. But it’s the same thing. When faced with a challenge, we sometimes create conditions for failure ahead of time to protect our egos. An example of self-handicapping is when we say we’re not feeling well just before a test, so if it doesn’t go well, we’ll have an explanation. Or when we confess to our ankle being sore just before running on the field for a big game. If we don’t perform, maybe it’s because our ankle was hurting.

Self-handicapping is simply a way of avoiding uncomfortable truths. It’s much easier to say “I failed because I didn’t study” instead of “I failed because, despite my best efforts, I lack ability in this subject”.

If you can always blame your failures on external forces, instead of internal ones, well, who’s to say you really failed? If we go back to the premier league, I tell myself that it’s logical to lose to teams owned by Russian oil-billionaires or Arab Sheiks. Money has ruined the beautiful game. It’s not our fault.

And that’s the danger of self-handicapping: never facing the truth. If you want to change things in your life, the first thing you’ve got to do is get real about your current situation. Do a stocktake. It’s time to take responsibility and stop letting yourself off the hook when things don’t go your way. Your lies might mean that you never address the real obstacles that are getting in the way of your success.

I want you to think about a goal you have. And now think about all the excuses you’re going to make if you don’t achieve that goal. I want you to be honest. You know the things you typically say to yourself when you fail at something. Is it because it’s just too difficult; you don’t have enough money, is it because you’re white; or because you’re black; or because no one understands you? My go to excuse is that I just don’t have the time, especially with little kids at home.

It’s actually a good idea to write this list down, so that when you hear yourself saying one of the things on the list, you recognise it for what it is. An excuse. A rationalisation. Permission to accept second best.

What I learned from Leicester’s victory is two-fold. Firstly, the reason Liverpool didn’t win is not because they don’t have the resources that their rivals do – so Liverpool and its fans will need to cross that of the list of excuses. Secondly, I’m not saying that Liverpool will go out and win the league next season but I’m also not saying they can’t.  You see, every time you expose an excuse for what it is, you are mentally acknowledging that your goal has a stronger chance of success. You are allowing yourself to believe in the possibility. And that’s what I’d like to leave you with today.

I challenge you to reframe the way you look at the success of others. It can be hard, but try not to succumb to jealousy. Instead, you should celebrate the achievements of others because the fact that they are able to do it just proves that it is possible. For you too. No excuses. It can be done. It is attainable. Now go out and do it.